My, my metro card: Vintage passes from Metro Transit, now Halifax Transit.

The city’s low income transit pass (LITP) program will start accepting applications on May 21, and there are a couple of changes afoot. Applications for the LITP have been combined with those for two other city programs, the Recreation Access Program (which covers half to full cost of rec programs for households with very low incomes) and the Property Tax Exemption and Deferral Program (which provides payment plans, deferrals, or exemptions to households with very low incomes.) The other, bigger change is that the cap on the number of people allowed to use the LITP will double, from 1,000 to 2,000.

First things first: combining the applications for all three of the city’s low income programs is smart. It has the potential to save people some time, and by putting all these programs under the banner of an Affordable Access Program (AAP), the promotion and awareness of all programs is bound to improve. For starters, there’s bound to be cross-pollination. According to city spokesperson Bryn Langille, about 1,300 people applied and qualified for the LITP (about 300 were accepted, didn’t use it, and so were removed), while 3,500 applied and qualified for the property tax program, and only 400 used the recreation access program. Now that they’re all on the same form, it’s hard to imagine why folks eligible for one program won’t tick the box for the other two. (Obviously with property taxes, only homeowners are eligible.)

The only trouble is, while there’s no cap on how many people can use the property tax and recreation programs, Halifax Transit has placed a cap on the number of low income people who can use the LITP program. For the past year and a bit, only a maximum of 1,000 people have been allowed to purchase LITP passes, on a first-come, first-served basis. As of July, that number will increase to 2,000.

I’ve written before about why Halifax should scrap the cap on the LITP program, but here’s the TL;DR:  We need room for more than 2,000 people in this program because there are way more than 2,000 working poor in Halifax who need a transit service that’s affordable for them.

And despite the absurd and cataclysmic financial impacts predicted in the Halifax Transit staff report, there is actually little risk that giving poor people a bit more for their money will hurt Halifax Transit in a significant way. The LITP levels the playing field in terms of access to a basic service, one that many people need in order to live a reasonable life.

Council had a chance last year to lift the cap, but instead went with the needlessly conservative Halifax Transit staff recommendation to merely double it. Halifax Transit’s report assured councillors that allowing another 1,000 LITP slots would likely be “more than sufficient to meet demand,” despite the fact that the same report went on to argue that demand, with no cap in place, would be catastrophically high. Sadly, no councillors called them on this contradiction.

On the bright side, at least the timing is good for this cap increase. A fare hike is coming October 1, increasing the cost of an adult monthly pass from $78 to $85. The increase works out to $84 per year for year-round transit riders (about twice the average annual property tax bill increase of $42.85).

Halifax Transit’s most realistic worry with the LITP is the potential for re-sales of the discount passes for cash. This is not so much a problem because poor people are making money, but because less-poor people are not paying full price for a transit pass. But that should become a moot point once Halifax Transit finally gets around to introducing a new fare management system. Last August, Halifax Transit tech director Marc Santilli predicted a ballpark 18-month timeline before alternative payment methods could be available on buses, which would put us around February 2020. A smart card system could easily solve the problem of illegal re-sales of discount passes, and also vastly up the convenience of getting bus passes or paying for the bus.

The cap on the LITP program remains a needless obstacle for low-income people gaining reasonable access to their city’s transportation system. Here’s hoping that when it’s time to evaluate it next, councillors and staff consider modelling it more after its sister program, the Recreation Funding Access Program. Not only does the Rec program not have a cap, but it even adjusts the eligible income levels for larger households, so as not to penalize families. (Under the LITP, a single person making $33,000 qualifies, but a family of four making $35,000 does not.) And to boot, the Rec program has a very simplified “sliding scale,” that is, a discount that increases the lower your income is.

Table showing eligible income levels for Halifax’s Recreation Funding Access Program.

For the extra 1,000 people who will have greater access to Halifax Transit starting this summer, this doubling of the LITP cap is great news. But we have a ways to go before there is fair access to the transit system for people regardless of income.

Halifax Transit pass sales: a snapshot

I was curious about how transit pass sales have fared over the years, and Halifax Transit was gracious enough to share the numbers of passes they’ve sold each month for the past nine years. Here are the annual numbers, broken down by type of pass sold:

A breakdown of various categories of Halifax Transit pass sales, 2010-2019
Data provided by HRM.

There’s a few interesting things to note from this data.

  • On average, during the school year, there are about three times as many valid U-Passes in the city as there are regular price passes. To be fair, not all of the 29,000 or so U-Pass holders (6,500 in the summer) take transit regularly, which is part of the reason it is such a deeply discounted pass.
  • The total number of passes sold last year, including all types, went up by 66,419 — nearly the same number that were sold to the Department of Community Services (DCS), as part of their income assistance transit pass program. The jump in total passes certainly appears attributable to the DCS pass deal, which probably increased Halifax Transit’s pass revenue by roughly $1.4 million in its first nine months of operation. (It is likely, of course, that this is somewhat offset by a decline in ticket sales.) In March 2019, about 9,400 people had DCS passes, and that number could go as high as 16,000, further increasing Halifax Transit’s pass revenue.
  • The number of regularly-priced monthly passes sold has been dropping each year since 2013-14. (The previous two years it had taken a dive likely due to the transit strike.) There are a few factors that could have contributed to this steady decline, not least of which is a drop in gas prices starting in 2014. There was also the introduction of the E-Pass discount program in January 2013, a transit fare hike in September 2013, and increases in U-pass numbers over several years. Then in September 2016, there was the introduction of the LITP program, and in July 2018, the Department of Community Services pass program.

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